Rookie of the Year?

You cannot steal first base.  A player has to hit the ball, walk, or get hit by the pitch to make it to first.  Once on first base, a player can steal any base, a fact that Billy Hamilton is proving on a nightly basis.

Pitchers pitch and hitters hit, baseball can be as simple as this.  However, two of the leading contenders for the National League Rookie of the Year award seem to be proving this wrong.  Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs are tied for the most strikeouts in the National League this season.  The only player in Major League Baseball with more strikeouts is Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles.  Why are two players who fail to do their jobs the most leading the charge in winning an award that is designed for the best new player in the game?

Joc Pederson can hit a baseball a mile, but he needs to make more contact if he wants to be an elite player. (www.usatoday.com)

Joc Pederson can hit a baseball a mile, but he needs to make more contact if he wants to be an elite player. (www.usatoday.com)

Entering play on August 15th:

Joc Pederson has the following stat line:

G

PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG

OPS

113 464 378 56 83 18 1 22 45 74 137 0.220 0.359 0.447

0.806

BBRate 16.5%
K Rate 29.5%

Kris Bryant has the following stat line:

G

PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG

OPS

105 453 381 60 97 19 4 16 66 60 137 0.255 0.362 0.451

0.813

BBRate 13.3%
K Rate 30.2%
Kris Bryant has the ability to be the star the Cubs have been waiting for, but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts if he is to reach his potential. (www.northjersey.com)

Kris Bryant has the ability to be the star the Cubs have been waiting for, but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts if he is to reach his potential. (www.northjersey.com)

Both Pederson and Bryant are excellent players with extremely bright futures.  However, their consistent inability to put the bat on the ball should raise some concerns.  Both players are still young and are in their first full season in the Majors, so there is obviously plenty of time and room for improvement.  The idea of swing hard in case you hit something is fine on select pitches, but not during every at bat.  Swinging for the fences every time does not help a team as much as understanding when to back away from this approach.  The difference between hitting 30 and 40 home runs is at most 40 RBI (hitting 10 grand slams in a season has never happened, the most being 6, and the odds of shattering this record are astronomically small).  Could those maximum of 40 RBI be made up, and more than likely surpassed, by cutting down on the all or nothing type approach?

It is impossible to force the defense to make an error if the ball is not put in play.  Putting the ball in play means anything can happen.  The fielder can misjudge a fly ball, whiff on a grounder, make a poor throw, lose the ball in the lights or sun; the batter can move a runner over with a well-placed ground ball or fly ball.  None of this is possible if the batter does not put the ball in play.

In recent memory, Adam Dunn looms large as the king of the all or nothing swing.  Dunn hit 462 career home runs, but he also struck out 2,379 times.  Over his 14 year career Dunn’s 28.6% K Rate made him a liability for any team he played for that was not able to absorb the downside to his hitting abilities.  Dunn could change a game with one swing, but at what cost?  The all or nothing approach could kill rallies and scoring opportunities and shorten lineups.  The reward just does not seem to balance out with the benefit.  Dunn was an impact player for a long time; he averaged 33 HR, 83 RBI, 94 BB, 78 R a season.  However, those numbers are countered with a lifetime .237 BA and an average of 170 strikeouts a season.  Every season of his career he struck out more times than games played, not a recipe for long-term success.  Even his 15.8% career BB Rate is higher than that of Pederson and Bryant.  Adam Dunn, the most recent king of the all or nothing swing has a lower career strikeout percentage rate and higher walk rate than either Joc Pederson or Kris Bryant.

Adam Dunn is the most recent king of the all or nothing swing. (www.http://nowbatting9th.blogspot.com/)

Adam Dunn is the most recent king of the all or nothing swing. (www.http://nowbatting9th.blogspot.com/)

The Rookie of the Year award is supposed to reward the successful beginning of a players Major League career.  The idea that Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant appear to be the front runners to win the award in the National League is strange.  Yes, both players can hit the ball well beyond the outfield fence, but baseball is more than just a home run derby.  The acceptance of this approach is a return to the ideas of the steroid era, skip playing small ball and wait for the big three-run home run.  This approach is fine, as long as teams, fans, and players are willing to accept the fact that there will be fewer balls in play and strikeout totals from video games.

There is without a doubt a place within baseball for the sluggers, there is no denying that the game needs them.  However, not every player can or should try to be like Ken Griffey Jr. or Babe Ruth.  There is nothing wrong with hitting 20 to 25 home runs a year and having a batting average in the .280s, instead of hitting 30 home runs and batting around .240.  Those extra .040 points worth of batting average will almost certainly match and surpass the runs produced by the extra 5 to 10 home runs that the player lost by not swinging for the fences every time at bat.

Say what you will, but baseball is a team game.  The team needs each individual player to contribute if the team as a whole is going to be successful.  Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant have both played for successful teams so far in the Major League careers.  This has afforded them both the room to continue growing as professional hitters.  However, for both of them to reach their potential they will need to make more contact with the baseball.  This might require them hit fewer home runs.  This is a trade off for being a better all-around player.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig understood how to be both a slugger and a great hitter. (NY Post via the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore MD.)

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig understood how to be both a slugger and a great hitter. (NY Post via the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore MD.)

The great players are not the ones who have all or nothing types of swings, rather they are the Babe Ruth’s, Lou Gehrig’s, Hank Aaron’s, Willie Mays‘, and Miguel Cabrera’s of the world.  These are the hitters who could hit the ball a mile when need be, but could also simply put the ball in play.  Pederson and Bryant should learn from this approach.  Ruth hit 714 home runs, while posting a .342 career batting average, and having a 12.5% K Rate.  Gehrig hit 493 home runs, .340 career batting average, and having a 8.2% K Rate.  Aaron hit 755 home runs, .305 career batting average, and having a 9.9% K Rate.  Mays hit 660 home runs, .302 career batting average, and having a 12.2% K Rate.  Cabrera has hit 405 home runs, .321 career batting average, and has a 16.9% K Rate.  These all-time greats put the ball in play, and yet the home runs still came.  They all helped their team be successful every time they stepped between the lines.  Even Mike Trout and Bryce Harper understand that making contact is important.  Trout has a 22.4% career K Rate and Harper has a 21.1% career K Rate.  While their K Rate is higher than these legends, they are also much lower than Pederson and Bryant.

Adjusting to life in the Majors goes beyond just playing baseball.  Pederson and Bryant are hopefully just settling into the beginnings of long and successful careers.  They are off to good starts, but not Rookie of the Year award worthy starts, perhaps they should be on the second tier for consideration for that award.  Both players do many parts of the game well, but both need to work diligently on putting the ball in play and reducing their number of strikeouts.  If they can do this, they both have the talent to be successful year after year at the highest level of the sport.

DJ

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